Over the past 12 months, FutureGov has worked with Suffolk and Essex County Councils, as well as a number of other councils, to understand the needs of residents to access rural transport and understand the opportunities available. Together, we developed and trialled a digitally bookable community bus service. In this creative solution, we supported these councils to become the market shapers, providing the platform and insight to create sustainable new travel options.
We learnt a great deal during our 12 months of designing and testing alongside Suffolk and Essex. In the name of open and transparent working, we’d like to share the challenges we faced and the lessons we learned.
As we’ve said before, Uber isn’t coming. Assuming that they or a similar service will is a fool’s errand, ignoring the challenge at hand. The only option for a brighter future of rural transport is in the unique opportunity for us to think differently. Because regardless of cuts, people’s needs remain.
The challenges we faced during our work wasn’t only in figuring out how we provide transport and a different type of experience. We had to figure out how we flip a service on its head, injecting new skills and new ways of working into a very traditional industry.
Use the data you have
Many historic rural transport routes have remained the same, untouched for decades. Despite changing demographics, new travel behaviours and different opportunities, rural routes have remained largely static. We needed to understand the new areas of demand, the new hotspots where the people were by looking at these areas through fresh eyes.
We spoke with users, third-party transport operators and the council to extract data and understand needs. This approach had successes, but we overestimated the readiness at which partners would act if given access to accurate data and insight about the unmet travel needs of residents.
Traditionally, councils and operators don’t realise how valuable their knowledge is, yet are uniquely positioned and incentivised to bring together data and local insights. By tapping into local knowledge of residents, transport suppliers and organisations, councils can take the leading role to identify travel needs.
Imitate the disruptors
Modern businesses are changing user expectations. Amazon will deliver almost anything straight to your door in as little as a day. Uber created a seamless taxi experience at the tap of a button. And you can pay for almost everything with a simple touch of your phone, no wallet required. These businesses disrupted and have forever changed the landscape.
Not only did these disruptors introduce new technology and ways of working, but they gave users a reason to want to try it. Users expect an easy service, but don’t assume that ‘if you build it, they will come’. Services like Uber and Chariot are masters in urban transport because they convinced people to try something new. Creating introductory offers, refer-a-friend schemes and providing high profile services to events are all ways to make it easier for people to experience their all-important first journey. It may be “loss-leading”, but by de-risking and incentivising, we can build trust and relationships with our users.
Go to the people
Speaking of building trust and relationships, start with the influencers and connectors in your area. ‘Influencers and connectors for rural transport?’ I hear you ask. They do exist, we only need to search for them in new places. Social media changed the way we interact with the world. A quick search through Twitter and Facebook groups will help you locate the passionate people interested in the difference you’re trying to make. They’re likely running specialist local groups which bring people together online and offline.
Influencer marketing was a large component of our new approach to meeting user needs in Suffolk and Essex. Accessing unofficial community leaders, we were able to reflect the ethos of the rural community and make tailored-cases for why they and their tribe should use our platform. We built relationships which attracted people and helped us run experimental routes and gain the momentum to grow.
It starts with a different mindset
There isn’t a mythical provider who’s going to swoop in and fix the issues facing rural transport. It’s up to councils to embrace a new role and take the lead in shaping services. With fresh eyes, a 21st-century outlook and willingness to learn from the community, we can create better, viable rural transport options with the tools and services we already have.